Ask a Priest

Leaving the Catholic Church

Dec 02, 2016

Hi Father: If I understand this correctly,that leaving the Catholic Church and joining a protestant church is a grave mortal sin. Is that right? Please give me your thoughts on this particular matter.

Asked at 07:33 pm on December 02nd 2016

Hi Michael, there are 3 conditions required to commit a mortal sin: full knowledge, full consent, and gravity of matter. You’re quite right, leaving the Catholic Church would certainly be a very serious matter indeed. But whether the first and second conditions would be fulfilled every time someone decides to leave the Church would have to be seen in every particular case.

People can leave the Church and join another Church for all sorts of reasons. In Ireland in the 19th century, some people, during our terrible famine of 1846-1847 became Protestant because they and their families were dying of starvation, and some in other Churches offered them food. Since they were living in an area where thousands died of famine, I’d be very slow to say they’d committed a mortal sin, motivated, as they were, to saving their families’ lives.

In our own time, many baptized Catholics have very little understanding of what it is to be a Catholic, and when they come across people whose lives have been changed by living the Gospel, they’re attracted by that. Others have left the Church because of the scandals that have become public over the last 20 or more years – they can’t believe that some in Church leadership could have failed so abjectly in responding to the horror of child abuse.

Instead of thinking in terms of moral sin, I think there’s two things we Catholics need to do when faced with people who are leaving or have left the Church. Firstly, of course, to make a serious effort at understanding why they have left, and secondly, for ourselves to take Jesus’ words seriously, ‘this is how they will know you are my disciples, that you love one another’ (Jn 13: 35). If, whenever people come across Catholics, they’re attracted by the beauty of our communion with one another, I think we’ll both attract people to the Church and lose a lot less of those who drift away from it.

Very best, Fr Brendan

Replied at 03:23 am on December 05th 2016